Most discussion of gig workers has focused on their material insecurity. More attention also needs to be paid to what goes on in their heads.
The ‘gig’ economy has grown to become an intrinsic part of our society and yet the benefits and risks of this new way of working are still much debated. Understandably, the employment status of gig workers captures most public attention.
Most European Union member states lack clear regulations on this, so a platform’s terms and conditions determine the status of its ‘users’, based on the existing regulatory framework. Although there are instances of platforms offering employment contracts, most consider gig workers as self-employed.
This is often referred to as ‘bogus’ self-employment: workers are treated as such for tax, commercial and company-law purposes, yet remain subject to subordination by and dependence on the contractor and/or platform. As new forms of work outpace regulation, the key legal challenge is to ensure no workers are left outside of the regulatory framework.
That should, however, not hide the fact that gig workers deal with unique challenges when it comes to working conditions. In addition to the specific hazards entailed by the different types of activities mediated through online labour platforms, there are also risks related to the way gig work is organised, designed and managed. Addressing these is essential, to safeguard working conditions and ensure a socially responsive transition to the new world of work.
The gig economy has essentially been made possible by concurrent advances in digitalisation and telecommunications. Digital platforms not only allow the remote connection of customers and contractors everywhere in the world but also maximum standardisation of the organisation and delivery of work. By assuming duties conventionally assigned to human-relations departments, algorithms are given responsibility for making the decisions that affect work, limiting human involvement in the labour process.
Digital surveillance is an essential component of algorithmic management: automated decision-making requires a substantial amount of data, which can only be achieved by intensively tracking workers’ activities and whereabouts. This aspect of supervision is often illustrated by the ‘panopticon’ metaphor—a prison system allowing a single observer simultaneously to watch each prisoner from a central point. Such architecture is intended to ‘internalise’ the supervisory function, as the prisoner cannot know when the observer is watching and so assumes this could be at any moment.
While most gig workers are unclear about which data are being collected and how they are used by the platform, the internalisation of the supervisory function is potent enough to create an overall climate of discipline and control. There is evidence that constant monitoring and automated managerial techniques contribute to an increasingly hectic pace of work, a lack of trust toward the platform and pronounced power asymmetries, limiting workers’ opportunities to resist or develop effective forms of internal voice.
The implementation of automated and remote management practices eliminates the need for shared physical premises. Most of the tasks are performed individually, separated and often in competition with fellow workers. Gig workers also lack organisational forms of support, such as coaching or career mentoring. Physical interactions with supervisors or co-workers are considered obsolete—even counterproductive, as they introduce undesired variability into matching demand and supply.
Such a work environment lacks the warmth of face‐to‐face interactions, which are crucial for developing a sense of oneness and of belonging to the same community. Rather, multiple studies underline a logic of ‘everyone for themselves’, leading to disputes within the working class.
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Platforms’ remote technologies are also redefining the boundaries between private and public space. The fear of missing out on lucrative gigs leads to an obsessive relationship with the platform’s app and encourages a mindset of ‘always and everywhere’ availability.
Gig workers are required to approach their working life as a project in which they must invest, leading to an internalisation of external risks. In this ‘onlife paradigm’ of fluid reality, everyday experience and personal assets are exposed to financialisation or value extraction. More permeable boundaries means work interrupts non-work behaviours, thereby adding to overtime and work-family conflicts.
Working in isolation is also detrimental to professional identity, as workers are short of role models or career mentors. Without the protective cloak of such identity, workers are more likely to experience occupational stress and to suffer from anxiety, burnout and depression. In this regard, research shows that micro-workers represent an especially vulnerable population, their identity rendered fragile by lack of meaning.
Although the ‘job for life’ concept is losing relevance, workers in the conventional economy can still expect some form of continuity in employment. Organisations and occupations provide a certain clarity regarding expected career paths, guiding individuals through potential future roles.
In the gig economy, however, platforms use its flexibility as a strategic asset. Platform-mediated work mostly comprises short-term assignments, which leave subsequent work relationships up in the air. Moreover, the self-employed nature of gig work implies that ‘users’ are solely responsible for their own economic upkeep and career planning.
What is often presented as an opportunity for variety and autonomy actually burdens workers with managing the growing complexity of their working lives, as they are required to maintain a high degree of self-responsibility to generate a steady income flow. Browsing multiple platforms, combining many sources of income, installing third-party tools, exchanging tips on virtual communities and exploring new types of task or requester are typical examples of the strategies gig workers carry out to ensure a decent living.
From an occupational health-and-safety perspective, such uncertainty gives rise to job insecurity and emotional demands. To preserve employability, gig workers feel pressed to be exceptionally affable, to tolerate inappropriate behaviours and to leave no wish unanswered—which can be emotionally exhausting and stressful.
Recent events have made it abundantly clear that gig workers are the guinea pigs of the new world of work and that some aspects of this paradigm may go mainstream sooner than expected. Stories abound of companies announcing extended work-from-home policies, some even deciding to allow employees to work from home permanently. Twitter, Facebook, Shopify and Coinbase are examples of corporations publicly announcing a long-term shift to permanent telework, claiming that office-centredness is a thing of the past.
The world’s largest work-from-home experiment that is Covid-19 may therefore accelerate the transition to a new era of remote-only companies. In this context, addressing workplace fragmentation and digital surveillance is all the more important—with far-reaching implications going well beyond gig work.
Pierre Bérastégui is a researcher for the European Trade Union Institute and a lecturer at the University of Liège. His masters was in industrial and organisational psychology and his PhD in cognitive ergonomics.